A Halloween Story

Happy Halloween! This year I went to San Diego with a bunch of friends to celebrate and the costume theme was “Disneyland Rides.” Four of us dressed up as characters from “Toy Story” – Emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear, a green alien, and Rex (if you haven’t seen the Partysaurus Rex short yet, check it out!).

Disney knows how to tell a good story. “Toy Story” – original! They say that every story has already been told… and yes, I guess you could say that we already have stories told from the point of view of toys (The Nutcracker, for example; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”). I remember reading a scary story when I was a kid about a killer teddy bear. But no one has ever done a toy story in quite this way – and Disney has made three movies, not to mention numerous shorts, each arguably better than the last.

Creating original, brilliant stories is no easy feat. Forget about original, creating a brilliant story isn’t easy. All right, forget about brilliant – even creating a story that’s good isn’t easy.

My self-imposed NaNoEdMo begins tomorrow and my reigning thought is, What the hell was I thinking?! I’m not ready for this! What if I can’t do 50 hours in a month? What if I can’t do 20? This is stupid and it was my idea anyway so I can just say I’m not doing it. Okay, done. Not doing it. Phew.

No, I’m not really backing out. I’m doing it. At least I’m going to give it my all and try.

Today I decided to “practice” and I spent 3 hours revising short stories. It was a positive experience because I had fun and it helped me think, Yes, I can do this. I don’t know if I can keep it up for a whole month… but it’s really only 1.67 hours per day, right?

The key to this, I think, is not getting caught up in the deadline. Practice some forgiveness – if I miss a day, don’t hound myself, just move on and see where I can put more hours the next day.

Basically, if you don’t see any posts from me through November, you’ll know why.

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Wordlove: Paris Review at the Hammer

Last week I went to a Hammer Reading followed by a Q&A with the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, and the editor of The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein. My overarching feeling as I sat there was, “These people are so articulate and have such wide vocabularies – I need to surround myself with more people like this!”

One of my favorite parts of the discussion was when an audience member asked the panel, “Where did your love of words begin? Or when did you first know/discover your passion for literature?”

Wordlove [wurd·luhv] n. a deep and enduring amorous emotion for collections of letters, or, an infatuation with grammar, spelling, story-telling, and all things word-related. (Kidding, I just made all that up. But you get the idea.)

Sadie had a mother with a certain discerning ban on any books she found too vulgar, and hence as a child Stein used to sneak off in bookstores to read Once Upon A Potty. (I used to love this book, in all its red, square, flowered, graphic glory.) The prohibition of some books only instilled in Stein a deeper love for all of them. The editors, though they have the same last name, are actually not related; Lorin joked, “We’re not siblings, but I believe we had the same mother.” Mona Simpson, by comparison, said she grew up reading all manner of “vulgar” books, and her love of words grew just the same.

As for me, two salient memories stick out in my mind: a certain bedtime story my father used to tell and the moment I learned to read.

My early wordlove was instilled, I think, by being read to every night before bed. My father, an architect, and a writer himself, used to read to my little sister and me, and also used to tell us stories he made up on the spot. Always, always, I wanted more. Another, I would plead, tell us another. Tell us a long one. Ok, he would say. “Once upon a time, there was a long, long, long, long, long snake. The end.”

And then – the moment I learned to read. There was actually an instant where everything clicked. I was in my aunt’s living room, with my grandmother, and she held the “I Can Read” book while I cried in frustration. How I hated that little boy in the book in his stupid red-and-white striped shirt! I tried, I cried, I tried and cried some more. My grandmother, with astounding patience, coaxed me back to the book, and I tried again. And miraculously, the letters came together, made sense, I could recognize and pronounce words, and I could read. I was voracious after that. Read Jurrassic Park in elementary school, things like that. Unlike other parents, who struggled to get their kids to read, my mom mandated that for every “fun” book I read, I had to read a classic. I scoured the shelves for something that looked of minor interest. Rose In Bloom promised young love, but this is Louisa May Alcott, who wrote about times when holding hands couldn’t be done without a chaperone. Luckily my mother’s mandate didn’t hinder my passion for words, and of course I began to write as much as I read (and you know where that went).

Sadie said that she does not want to see books treated as rare artifacts, like things held in museums, or treated with extreme caution. She loves the ubiquitous, almost disposable nature of books, and hopes this doesn’t change – she treats hers horribly, she admitted, throwing them into her purses, eating with them, bending covers and staining pages.

I, too, love eating and reading, and am guilty of staining many a page. I hope for my books to be read, stained, dog-eared – loved. Of course I have to write them first. So yes, I’ve officially decided that while my writers group does NaNoWriMo, I am participating in my own NaNoEdMo. Fifty hours in the month of November. This Thursday it begins! I’m filled with the usual: excitement and trepidation. Will I be able to do this? Is it crazy to try? There were several books I had intended to read before beginning the revision, which I have not read. I had also hoped to go through everybody’s notes in eager detail. Perhaps write an outline. My mentor suggested setting down a list of changes to make. I have three days to prepare… I’m stressed out all ready.

Lessons in Arbitrage

When I decided to go see a movie with my dad and he suggested “Arbitrage” I had no idea what he was talking about. Maybe I don’t watch enough commercials, or maybe this movie was aimed at a different demographic (is Richard Gere the Leo DiCaprio of my mother’s generation? Suffice it to say I was the youngest one in the theater by at least ten years), but he told me it was a drama about a high-powered money mogul and I agreed to go. (*Note: according to the fabulous Wikipedia, “in simple terms, [arbitrage] is the possibility of a risk-free profit at zero cost.”)

Gere’s character, Robert Miller, gets into some seriously tight spots (manslaughter; a financial “hole” of hundreds of millions in the company he’s trying to sell) and somehow this man gets out of everything. Miller’s adept navigation of his circumstances is due in no small part to his empire, the wealth and name he’s built for himself, and the intelligence that got him there.

I was listening to NPR and I heard a chat with the screenwriter, Nicholas Jarecki, on creating Miller’s character. This guy is all the things we’re supposed to hate, and yet. As you’re watching the movie, you can’t help but hope he figures a way out of the mess he’s gotten himself into. One of the ways Jarecki accomplishes this is building the character’s motivation from the outset.

My dad called Miller “evil,” but I don’t know. Not a nice guy, certainly, not someone I’d like to meet, but his motivation is strong enough that you can at least understand why he does what he does. As Gere put it in an interview with NPR aptly titled “Richard Gere On Playing A Jerk You Want To Root For,” “…when you spend time with even supposedly monsters, there’s a human being there. And in storytelling, you’ve got to find that human being.”

This is something I’ve been discovering in writing my novel. I started out trying to create characters you would hate, but I had to make them real. Human. I’m still working on this, and I’m learning from Jarecki and Gere and how they did “Arbitrage.”

I think I’m going to take my mentor’s advice and stick with this novel. Revise it. Again.

Image from nanoedmo.net.

Apparently there is not just a NaNoWriMo but a NaNoEdMo – that’s National Novel Editing Month. The official one takes place in March, but why not try for 50 hours in November? While my writers’ group members log their words, I might log my minutes…

A Novel Critique

Last week I had a successful critique for Draft 3 of my novel, and I am so grateful to my readers. This group of very intelligent and supportive people read through the entire 300+ page draft, wrote notes, and joined the critique with thoughtful and honest comments. Over the past few days I have also had a personal calls with people who weren’t able to make the crit. Thank you to all my readers for your encouragement and the effort you’ve put into this.

We discussed everyone’s favorite scenes, favorite moments, the world-creation, and the construct of being popular in this novel. And the main things I have to work on are, let’s see – the beginning, the end, and my protagonist’s character arc. No big shakes, right? For some reason I thought that by the fourth draft I might be working on things like, I don’t know, expand this scene, cutting this specific scene. Sentence structure, refining dialogue – well, it seems the dialogue is one of the strengths, and wordsmithing on the sentence level doesn’t happen until oh, about draft 8.

With previous drafts I was getting comments randomly, and there was no dialogue between critiquers, so it was hard to be sure what I wanted to take and what I didn’t. This critique was so great because people talked to me and to each other, so I got to see clearly what was disagreed upon and what everyone thought was a necessary change.

Hard copies of my draft with notes from my readers.

When my mentor said he thought I should cut the first 60 pages, I wanted to tear my hair out. Apparently it’s a common thing for young writers, not to begin where the story actually begins. (I hate to think of myself as a “young” writer, even though I am, and I was so sure I was starting where it really begun!) I’ve let that little dagger sit for awhile and have gotten used to the idea. Thinking about okay, how might I do that? I brought the question to critique, to general agreement – yes, much of the beginning should be trimmed (a nice way to say, cut). The question – to prologue, or not to prologue – remains. (How often do people really read prologues? I do, because it’s usually part of the fiction. I’ll admit, however, I hardly ever make it past the first few pages of a forward.)

Usually for me critiques go one of two ways. Excitement, inspiration, I want to work on this immediately. Or deflation – it will never be what I want, I can’t even look at this right now. My general feeling after this critique is okay, here we go again. I’m elated that it went so well, afraid I’ll never get it published (sure, each draft has been significantly better than the previous, but still so riddled with issues), and ready to work on it again. I’ve heard many different forms of advice, one of them being that you should never begin work on a piece directly after a critique. You have to let it sink in, work in your subconscious, so when you go back to the piece, you have a place to go. To me, two months seems like forever. I feel like I’ve been away from my novel for a long time. But two months isn’t really that long. Often, it’s advised you take much more time away to get perspective. I have short stories that I’ve been working on for years, and the most recent drafts could never have happened back when I first wrote them.

A lovely gift from my friend, critiquer, and fellow writers’ group member. I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible support of the amazing people in my life!

What I’m getting to, is whether or not I should do NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month – November. Next month. I’m afraid that beginning a whole new project in the middle of my first novel is a crazy idea. At the same time, perhaps the time away would give me needed perspective. But if I begin a new novel, isn’t it only that much longer to publishing my current one? It’s a great thing for craft, to be writing and writing and getting perspective and writing some more, but a person could spend her whole life doing this and never publishing.

I’ve had the idea for my next book for a long time. It’s been brewing in the backround, and I’m starting to get excited about it. Several members of my writers’ group are going to participate. We even have a word counter up on the blog. I so want to participate in this race, be inspired by some healthy competition!

My mentor is adamant that I don’t step too far away from this novel. “You’ve worked too hard,” he said, “To let this go.” Perhaps I can use the buzz of NaNoWriMo to speed along my revision. A whole new draft in a month? That would be amazing. I just don’t know if this is a process that can be sped up.

The Writer, Long Emerged

Last month I went to see a reading at the HammerMichael Chabon, Pulitzer winner and best-selling author, was reading from his most recently published novel, Telegraph Avenue.

At the following Q&A, led by Mona Simpson (an accomplished author herself), Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman (note: also a best-selling author) discussed the writers’ life and process, their lives together, raising children, editing each other’s work, their differing writing habits and reading tastes. This, I think, is one of the moments young writers fantasize about – being on stage, among other successful writers, with an audience clinging to your spoken words as well as your written ones – this is one of those moments where you know you’ve emerged.

I’ve been to other readings where I’ve shown up right before it’s supposed to start, gone in, and found a seat a few rows from the front. At this event, I arrived half an hour early to stand at the back of the box office line, which was shorter even than the entrance line. I ended up getting in, so to speak – aside from the main room, where you get to share breathing air with these literary adepts, there is a second room for the overflow of eager listeners, where you watch the goings on of the adjacent room projected on a slide screen. (I heard that for the Lakers’ major away games, they sold tickets at astronomical prices for fans to come to the Staples Center and watch the game on huge television screens. And they sold out. Being in the slide room was like that, I imagine – not the same as actually being there, but almost as good, and still surrounded by the energy of fellow fans.)

I was surprised by the couple’s ease, by the way they sounded like real people. They joked, laughed, swore. Ayelet had a head cold. Just like everyone else, they have to figure out who’s doing the cooking and how the kids are getting looked after while the parents need creative space. (They take turns, I understand, getting away to just write.) No minor feat, to make a living as a novelist. Let alone to raise a successful household, when both parents are creative writers.

I think about my own future and how badly I want to be able to make a living purely with my fiction. How my boyfriend is also an artist. How you have to create a dance with each other, to support each other and each person’s respective passions. For the last seven months while I participated in an incredibly consuming leadership program, my boyfriend was the one who cooked for me when I got home starving at midnight, who worked extra on the days when I couldn’t, who told me I could do it when I thought I couldn’t. Now, with my program complete, my boyfriend is completing his degree in an intensive animation program, and it is my turn to do the extra dishes, remind him to go to bed early, and tell him that he can do it.

It is hard enough to be an artist alone. It is harder, sometimes, to be two artists together, and sometimes having an artist partner makes it easier. Becoming two successful artists together, long-emerged artists, now that’s a trick. Watching Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, I wanted to point and say, I know, I know, they are rare. How often does this happen? But see, it’s possible! It is!